When my friend David mentioned he drove to Galena, Illinois, it got me thinking of General U.S. Grant, who lived there for a time. Funny I should know that, but then again, not really.
I never read much as a kid since role models growing up were few, my mother reading racy, romantic paperbacks, my dad, Micky Spillane.
Austen at best, was a town in Texas for all they knew.
I’m not criticizing them, since who were their role models? My mom’s dad was a busy baker, her mother a serial complainer. My dad’s mother a Polish domestic working for the very rich, her husband a professional drunk. Who had the chance to read…so many drinks, so little time.
But I’m digressing.
It changed for me when I saw Ken Burns’s 1991 film on the American Civil War, igniting my reading muscle, launching a love for books that has never ceased.
The Killer Angels (1974), a favorite novel, was the book inspiring Burns to make his award winning film. Historical fiction of the Battle of Gettysburg seen through the eyes of its generals, captures July, 1863, making you feel as if you too are standing on Little Round Top about to make that bayonet charge.
From there I read Bruce Catton, and bios on Lincoln, Grant and Robert E. Lee. My friend Ed, way ahead of me, recommended The Battle Cry of Freedom (1988), Princeton Professor James McPherson’s epic of the war, gleaning him the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1989.
I even read all of Shelby Foote, quite an undertaking, because my appetite to know became insatiable.
I learned, the reason Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg giving what became his most famous speech (272 words) written on a napkin while riding the train, was because the fallen were so numerous, about 51,000 on both sides including 11 generals, they had to be buried where they fell.
It wasn’t the best time for our noble, tormented 16th President either, even though technically, we won the battle though at great cost, since he had just buried his son Willie not long before who died at 11, of typhoid fever.
Learning of a leader’s humanity increased mine realizing how responsible Lincoln had to feel while eulogizing all those boys.
He could have negotiated with the south anytime during those four long years, but his passion to protect the Union he knew our ancestors fought so valiantly for, got the better of him. Lincoln didn’t want to be the president known for its end after Senators Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, staved off civil war sacrificing their own political careers, eleven years earlier.
No wonder when he died on Good Friday, 1865, he looked incredibly older than his 56 years.
Mr. Grant, in Galena, unhappily working at a tannery, had yet to know what awaited him in the poignant wings of war.
I love knowing all of this, magnifying the many mysteries of patriotism.
History not only educates, it emboldens, defines and enlightens reminding us, who we are as Americans.
Perhaps ours isn’t as old as the Greeks or Romans, but it’s illustrious just the same.
As a friend of mine likes to say, American History fucking rocks.